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Music review: 'Voices of Freedom'

Choral Artists of Sarasota's annual Fourth of July concert shines brighter than just patriotic fanfare.

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  • | 11:52 a.m. July 6, 2017
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My conundrum: How to review a concert by an organization you have helped build, when you also participated in the concert — and it was dedicated to the memory of your wife, June LeBell.

Yes, it’s an ethical problem, but when I presented it to my editor, he said the equivalent of, “Of course, you can do it,” so here goes, following full disclosure:

First, it’s the annual July Fourth patriotic concert. Second, it’s by Sarasota’s only fully professional chorus, Choral Artists of Sarasota, recently renamed to show growth and versatility. Third and fourth, they packed the house and they are better than ever.

As much of an occasion as a serious concert,  these annual Independence Day concerts by then Gloria Musicae were first started by June LeBell, who felt a rousing chorus concert on July Fourth would be a good prelude and kickoff to the annual fireworks display — which it was, and still is.

June LeBell
June LeBell

But this year’s concert featured more than just the traditional flag waving patriotic songs and choruses. Artistic Director Joseph Holt builds excellent programs for these concerts, and they always are more than just a parade of patriotic songs.  After René Clausen’s fine acapella setting of the “Star Spangled Banner,” perhaps the sub-theme of the concert emerged in “Because All Men Are Brothers,” a setting of the well known Bach chorale with words by Tom Glazer and Pete Seeger.

Following “America, the New Colossus,” to the words of Erma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Holt then gave us a group of compositions tracing the struggles of wars fought by America:  “Chester,” a favorite of the Revolutionary War; “A Mystic Chord,” and a setting of the Gettysburg Address, for the Civil War; “Flanders Field,” a lovely setting of John McCrae’s World War I poem by Paul Aitken and “Homeland”, based on the “Jupiter” movement of Holst’s “The Planets”, with words by Holst and Spring-Rice.

George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in a sprightly arrangement by Doug Katsaros was a bit of a  respite, and the entire group was nicely wrapped up with “Lift Every Voice for Freedom,” a moving combination of “America” and the African-American Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” perhaps reminding us there are still battles to be fought and won.

Then the traditional fun began with Holt’s own “Armed Forces Salute,” followed by “An American Tribute” of six American favorites and ending with “God Bless America.” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the traditional encore, sneaked up earlier in the concert, complete with kazooing choristers and universal flag waving. The solemn and ever-moving Wilhousky setting of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made a beautiful coda to this uplifting concert before a completely enthralled audience at the First United Methodist Church.

The Choral Artists of Sarasota, formerly Gloria Musicae, have continued to improve under Joseph Holt’s leadership. Individual singers are better, and the overall blend is becoming more cohesive.  Yes, the men do get carried away at times, with a coarse sound that overpowers the women’s voices in the louder passages, but maybe they were just overcome with enthusiasm in the spirit of the occasion.

I was privileged to serve as narrator for two of the selections in the concert, and it’s still quite a thrill to sit on stage, almost in the midst of the singers for part of the concert. Quite a fitting prelude for the evening’s main course of fireworks on the Bayfront. 

It was a great afternoon.




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